Why nit-picking Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman is good news for Tennessee football

Adam Sparks
Knoxville News Sentinel
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Hendon Hooker must be the worst SEC Player of the Week in recent memory.

After all, did you see those three passes the Tennessee quarterback overthrew in the first quarter of the Pittsburgh game?

Hooker "was a little bit off,” coach Josh Heupel said.

And, sure, Cedric Tillman made the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime and had 162 yards receiving, the eighth-most in college football last week.

But he also dropped a fourth-down pass and another potential TD that could’ve put the game out of reach in regulation.

“That ball’s got to be caught,” ABC color analyst Todd Blackledge said during the broadcast.

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Hooker and Tillman – the Vols’ highest-scoring quarterback-receiver duo since Peyton Manning and Marcus Nash – were noticeably imperfect.

“Well, you know everybody makes mistakes,” wide receiver Jalin Hyatt said. “But we all believe in (Hooker). … And we all know what (Tillman) can do. We’re not worried.”

Sarcasm aside, the Vols can celebrate the critiques about their best two players, or at least the reasons behind them. Hooker and Tillman have reached a new level in their second season together. Excellence is expected. Mistakes are surprising. And problems are presumed to be temporary.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) and Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) celebrate a play during football game between Tennessee and Ball State at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

It’s a good place to be as No. 16 Tennessee (2-0) heads into Saturday’s game (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+) against Akron (1-1) at Neyland Stadium.

The SEC schedule is on the horizon, and the Vols are fueled by frustration over their imperfections. Hooker and Tillman are leading the way.

Hard to believe they were a backup and an underperformer

In fairness, Heupel and Blackledge – who both won national titles as star quarterbacks – weren’t the only ones to see flaws in the Tennessee duo’s performance.

“I give it a C,” Hooker said. “I was missing some throws at the beginning of the game. We were missing some catches.”

Tillman added: “I wasn’t too happy with the plays I put on the field, especially some of the plays I didn’t make. Ninety percent of the time, I make (the play).”

It’s a far cry from where Hooker and Tillman were a year ago.

Hooker, then a backup, was making his case for the starting job while Joe Milton recovered from an injury. Tillman, a non-factor for three seasons, was still seeking his first TD against a Power Five opponent.

Since then, Hooker and Tillman have connected on 11 TD passes. They trail only Manning and Nash, who hooked up for 13 TDs, in school history.

Vols believe their errors are temporary

The most startling change is that any mistakes by Hooker or Tillman are fleeting, and their teammates know that.Hooker’s passes were off target early against Pitt. But he completed 25 of his last 34 passes, including two TDs and no interceptions. He has not thrown an interception in 167 consecutive passes, the longest streak in school history.

Hooker’s poor start wasn’t the least bit alarming because teammates had seen him bounce back countless times in practices and games.

Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (4) jumps to catch a pass in the end zone during overtime during a game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Pittsburgh Panthers in Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. Tennessee defeated Pitt in overtime 34-27.

“No matter what, he’s going to keep a steady head and always move forward. The last few plays don’t matter to him,” guard Javontez Spraggins said. “It has never been a problem. He knows that to take steps forward you can’t stay in the same place.”

And just because Tillman dropped two key passes earlier in the game, snagging the game-winner seemed a certainty to the Vols.

“It’s confidence,” Hyatt said. “I believe in (Tillman’s) mind, he believes he’s the best receiver in the country. And he needs to think that.

“Whether he’s having a good game or a bad game, he’s our leader. What he proved in catching that ball in overtime is that it doesn’t matter.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

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